Simulacra and Subjectivity

by Benquo 3 min read5th Mar 202023 comments

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In Excerpts from a larger discussion about simulacra, following Baudrillard, Jessica Taylor and I laid out a model of simulacrum levels with something of a fall-from grace feel to the story:

  1. First, words were used to maintain shared accounting. We described reality intersubjectively in order to build shared maps, the better to navigate our environment. I say that the food source is over there, so that our band can move towards or away from it when situationally appropriate, or so people can make other inferences based on this knowledge.
  2. The breakdown of naive intersubjectivity - people start taking the shared map as an object to be manipulated, rather than part of their own subjectivity. For instance, I might say there's a lion over somewhere where I know there's food, in order to hoard access to that resource for idiosyncratic advantage. Thus, the map drifts from reality, and we start dissociating from the maps we make.
  3. When maps drift far enough from reality, in some cases people aren't even parsing it as though it had a literal specific objective meaning that grounds out in some verifiable external test outside of social reality. Instead, the map becomes a sort of command language for coordinating actions and feelings. "There's food over there" is construed and evaluated as a bid to move in that direction, and evaluated as such. Any argument for or against the implied call to action is conflated with an argument for or against the proposition literally asserted. This is how arguments become soldiers. Any attempt to simply investigate the literal truth of the proposition is considered at best naive and at worst politically irresponsible.
    But since this usage is parasitic on the old map structure that was meant to describe something outside the system of describers, language is still structured in terms of reification and objectivity, so it substantively resembles something with descriptive power, or "aboutness." For instance, while you cannot acquire a physician’s privileges and social role simply by providing clear evidence of your ability to heal others, those privileges are still justified in terms of pseudo-consequentialist arguments about expertise in healing.
  4. Finally, the pseudostructure itself becomes perceptible as an object that can be manipulated, the pseudocorrespondence breaks down, and all assertions are nothing but moves in an ever-shifting game where you're trying to think a bit ahead of the others (for positional advantage), but not too far ahead.

There is some merit to this linear treatment, but it obscures an important structural feature: the resemblance of levels 1 and 3, and 2 and 4. 

Another way to think about it, is that in levels 1 and 3, speech patterns are authentically part of our subjectivity. Just as babies are confused if you show them something that violates their object permanence assumptions, and a good rationalist is more confused by falsehood than by truth, people operating at simulacrum level 3 are confused and disoriented if a load-bearing social identity or relationship is invalidated.

Likewise, levels 2 and 4 are similar in nature - they consist of nothing more than taking levels 1 and 3 respectively as object (i.e. something outside oneself to be manipulated) rather than as subject (part of one's own native machinery for understanding and navigating one's world). We might name the levels:

Simulacrum Level 1: Objectivity as Subject (objectivism, or epistemic consciousness)

Simulacrum Level 2: Objectivity as Object (lying)

Simulacrum Level 3: Relating as Subject (power relation, or ritual magic)

Simulacrum Level 4: Relating as Object (chaos magic, hedge magic, postmodernity) [1]

I'm not attached to these names and suspect we need better ones. But in any case this framework should make it clear that there are some domains where what we do with our communicative behavior is naturally "level 3" and not a degraded form of level 1, while in other domains level 3 behavior has to be a degenerate form of level 1.[2]

Much body language, for instance, doesn't have a plausibly objective interpretation, but is purely relational, even if evolutionary psychology can point to objective qualities we're sometimes thereby trying to signal. Sometimes we're just trying to stay in rhythm with each other, or project good vibes.


[1] Some chaos magicians have attempted to use the language of power relation (gods, rituals, etc) to reconstruct the rational relation between map and territory, e.g. Alan Moore's Promethea. The postmodern rationalist project, by contrast, involves constructing a model of relational and postrelational perspectives through rational epistemic means.

[2] A prepublication comment by Zack M. Davis that seemed pertinent enough to include:

Maps that reflect the territory are level 1. Coordination games are "pure" level 3 (there's no "right answer"; we just want to pick strategies that fit together). When there are multiple maps that fit different aspects of the territory (political map vs. geographic map vs. globe, or different definitions of the same word), but we want to all use the SAME map in order to work together, then we have a coordination game on which map to use. To those who don't believe in non-social reality, attempts to improve maps (Level 1) just look like lobbying for a different coordination equilibrium (Level 4): "God doesn't exist" isn't a nonexistence claim about deities; it's a bid to undermine the monotheism coalition and give their stuff to the atheism coalition.
Book Review: Cailin O'Connor's The Origins of Unfairness: Social Categories and Cultural Evolution
Schelling Categories, and Simple Membership Tests

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